The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant captures the value and essence of their 11 volume work, i.e., The Story of Civilization, with utmost brevity. This post captures my analytical notes about the book arranged in chapter order.
Introduction - Hesitations
Durants explain and attribute their cautious historiography approach to the complexity of the involved variables, scarcity of evidence, and the limits of human cognition to make sense of things in the light of the ever-increasing pace of change. In my opinion, it pairs well with In Defense of History by Richard Evans. Key take-aways:
- Historiography is an imprecise and probabilistic art. Most of history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.
- Impartiality is impossible; hence relativity is the norm rather than an exception. All historical narratives are suspect.
- Historians want to believe that “the present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding." But, achieving total perspective has and will remain an optical illusion.
- Geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war are some of the fundamental forces that shape the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.
- “What of it?” is a question that the historians grapple with near the end of their research. What kind of guidance can we derive from the past to improve our present and safeguard our future?
Remember, not to confuse relativity with relativism. Relativism is the postmodern philosophy that there is no such thing as absolute or objective truth and all moral values are relative to the persons or groups holding them. Relativism imposes contemporary morality on historical situations and dominates modern-day historians' discourse, but Will & Ariel did not subscribe to it.
History and the Earth
- Human civilizations were built around water sources (i.e., rivers, lakes, oases, oceans, etc.).
- Geography and climate have been essential factors in dictating the migration and settlement patterns of civilizations.
- Technological advancements help us tame the geographical challenges, but our control over nature’s destructive forces remains non-existent. A single storm or earthquake can undo centuries of human terraforming.
- Predicts the rise of China, based on technological advancements in air travel. Air travel has leveled the playing field for countries with limited coastal access.
- Man, not the Earth, makes civilization. Geography and climate may offer agriculture, mining, or trade opportunities, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders and the hardy industry of followers can transform the possibilities into facts. It cites Israel as an example; this is the stereotypical Western narrative of a few mighty Westerners going into the desert and civilizing it.
Biology and History
This was an interesting chapter with quite a few timeless insights. Key points:
- The laws of biology are the fundamental laws of history: the process and trials of evolution, the struggle for existence, and the survival of the fittest.
- Life is competition.
- Competition is fundamental to everything that humans do. Even cooperation is a form of competition; we cooperate to strengthen our group against the other groups (i.e., family, community, company, religion, state, etc.).
- Groups possess/exhibit the same fundamental attributes of humans, i.e., partisanship, pride, envy, greed, etc.
- Life is selection.
- Nature is selective. It has not read the American Declaration of Independence or the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man very carefully. We are all born unfree and unequal. These inequalities are a product of nature (physical and psychological heredity) and nurture (our groups' customs and traditions).
- Inequality is not only natural and inborn; it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities.
- Economic development specializes in functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. The Pareto principle is applicable at the civilizational level.
- Freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies. Laissez-faire is winner take all. Only those belonging to below-average economic situations demand equality; others demand freedom. The latter usually win due to their superior economic influence and means.
- Inequality can only be controlled by sacrificing freedom. We can only hope for approximate equality through legal justice and educational opportunities.
- Life must breed.
- Survival matters more than anything else. Breeding determines whether a civilization exists or not. High or low culture doesn’t determine who wins in the competition of life; only that, over a long enough timespan, one tribe lives while the other dies and takes their ways with them.
- Nature restores balance through famine, pestilence, and war (Malthusian theory). Technological advancements in the food supply and health sectors have helped expand the balance horizon.
- Over time, the ‘upper class’ are outbred by the lower class, who eventually replace them. Eugenic understanding of civilization cannot account for the fact that the lower class persists throughout history as the upper-class melt-away time and time again; yet, civilization persists, and technological advancement continued.
- Over a longer horizon, physical vitality trumps intellectual pedigree because intelliegence is the result of individual education, opportunity, and experience and you could provide that to physically fit. Nietzsche: the best blood in Germany was in peasant veins; philosophers are not the fittest material from which to breed the race.
It ends with an interesting prediction about Catholics outproducing Protestants in America, becoming a majority by 2000 and dominating national, state, and municipal government. This prediction did not come to pass; Catholics dominate the judiciary but little else, and are culturally largely assimilated to American liberal norms.
Race and History
- Race isn’t a provably important factor in measuring civilizational capabilities. It is preliminary, not creative.
- Mixing of races creates the conditions for new culture, character, language, literature, religion, morality, and art.
- It is not the race that makes the civilization; it is the civilization that makes the people. Geographical, economic, and political circumstances create culture, which nurtures the human experience.
Character and History
- History shows no alteration in fundamental human nature. Means, instruments, and scale change, but motives and ends remain the same.
- Society is founded on the nature of man, not his ideals.
- Societies evolve economically, politically, intellectually, and morally when exposed to new conditions.
- The majority imitates the innovative minority (elites), who follow the initiative individual (leader).
- Intellect is a vital force in history but can also destroy things. A vast majority of new ideas are inferior to traditional responses. No one man can accumulate the wisdom needed in one lifetime to entirely overturn his people’s customs and traditions, as it is the product of centuries of tinkering by many people in the laboratory of history.
- It is good that there are conservatives and radicals, young and old, gender and class divisions. Such diversity enables a sort of equilibrium through constant but balanced tension of ideas and wills.
Morals and History
- Jewish enclaves managed to maintain 16 centuries of communal cohesion through a detailed moral code.
- Shallow historical understanding concludes morals are negligible due to variability. Extensive understanding stresses their universality and necessity.
- Variability comes from historical and environmental conditions: hunter-gatherers needed different moral codes to survive than agriculturalists. For example, hunter-gatherers ate to the brim because they didn’t know when the next meal is; agriculturists see this as gluttony, i.e., a sin.
- Likewise, the industrial revolution changed the moral code. Marriage age was delayed; children weren’t seen as economic assets, premarital sex increased, etc. Women were emancipated with contraceptives, professional work, etc.
- Individualism destroyed the authority of parents; old religious codes died as scientific/materialist education spread.
- Sin has existed in every age: homosexuality, adultery, gambling, etc.
- But behind the seeming disorder of history: wars, poverty, adultery, murder, persecutions, etc., were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women – kind and affectionate, troubled and happy with children. ‘Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?'
Religion and History
- Natural inequality creates poverty and misery, which is only alleviated by religion, the only alternative to despair. Without it, class war intensifies - and communism grows.
- The evidence of immorality in history is not the absence of morality from religion; religion ameliorates immorality’s worst excesses.
- Men desire religion rich in miracles, mystery, and myth.
- The contributors to the decline of religion in Christendom: Copernicus, Francis Bacon, the Protestant Reformation, Deism, the French and American revolutions, and industrialization and technological progress. Industrialization was the critical trigger for secularisation. Schools and colleges are secularised (with the professionalized teacher-academic body a new “priesthood”), theatres fill and churches empty, families disintegrate.
- Catholicism survives because it offers hope, and its mythology consoles the poor, and high fertility rates ensure survival. It lost the support of intellectuals but gained the support of the poor. If Christendom is devastated by another Great War, the Catholic Church will survive as it did after Rome’s collapse and again rule.
- God and religion repeatedly die only to rise again. Men cannot exist without religion.
- Puritanism and paganism alternate like a pendulum across history (cyclical theory). Modern excess may well trigger moral renewal; atheists will send their children to religious schools for discipline and education.
Economics and History
- The previous chapter on religion discusses the role of industrialization in secularising Christendom. Further developed in this chapter by discussing that economic (material) reality underlies political forms, religious institutions, and cultural creations.
- The Industrial Revolution spawned democracy, feminism, birth control, socialism, the decline of religion and loosening of morals, the liberation of literature from aristocratic patronage, etc.
- Marx underestimated the role played by noneconomic incentives in the behavior of the masses.
- Political or military power causes economic operations, not its result. E.g., the conquest of Al-Andalus, Mongol conquests, and Mughal conquests of India was poorer but militarily superior people dominating far richer people.
- Men manage men who manage things; men who manage money manage all. ‘Having studied the fluctuations in prices, they know history is inflationary, and money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.'
- The profit motive is an essential motive for productivity. Slavery, police supervision, and ideological enthusiasm are poor substitutes.
- The majority of ability in society is gathered in a minority of men (Pareto principle). The concentration of wealth follows this concentration of ability. Despotism hinders concentration, while democracy helps accelerate it. Rome saw 100 years of war at the end of the Republican period before Augustus restored control through distribution and imperialism.
- The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable/partial redistribution. Economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism.
Socialism and History
- The struggle of Socialism against Capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth.
- With its focus on ownership and competition, Capitalism has unarguably taken human inventiveness and productivity to new levels. But it is not all rosy as history is full of protests and revolts against industrial automation, price-fixing, uncompetitive business practices, and ill-gotten wealth.
- Capitalism and Socialism have competed to make each other better. The fear of Capitalism has compelled Socialism to widen individual freedom, and the fear of Socialism has compelled Capitalism to increase equality.
- Socialist experiments are spanned over most of the recorded human history. Like Capitalism, socialist experiments range from splendid successes (Egypt under Ptolemies, Incas in Peru) to abject failures (Rome under Diocletian).
- Sumeria (2100 B.C.), where economy, administration, and distribution of rations were organized by the state.
- Babylonia (1750 B.C.), the Hammurabi code fixed wages of herdsmen and artisans, etc.
- Egypt under Ptolemies (323 B.C. - 30 B.C.), the state-owned land and managed agriculture. Production and sale of other essentials like oil, salt, textile were nationalized with a complex bookkeeping system for revenue, taxes, and property registration. Ptolemaic achieved excellent engineering efficiency and was the wealthiest state of the time.
- Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian. It failed miserably, though.
- Ibn Khaldun was centuries ahead of his time when he articulated that controlling and stimulating the marketplace is the state’s job and can’t be left to the private citizenry.
- The reason for this is that dynasty and government serve as the world’s greatest marketplace, providing the substance of civilization. Now, if the ruler holds on to property and revenue, or they are lost or not properly used by him, then the property in the possession of the ruler’s entourage will be small. The gifts which they, in their turn, had been used to give to their entourage and people, stop, and all their expenditures are cut down. They constitute the greatest number of people who make expenditures, and their expenditure provides more of substance of trade than the expenditure of any other group of people. Thus when they stop spending, business slumps and commercial profits decline because of the shortage of capital. Revenues from the land tax decrease, because the land tax and taxation in general depend on cultural activity, commercial transactions, business prosperity, and the people’s demand for gain and profit. (Muqaddimah)
- Why did modern Socialism come first in Russia, where Capitalism was in its infancy, and there were no large corporations to ease the transition to state control?
- Centuries of peasant poverty and reams of intellectual revolt.
- Russian economy collapsed in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
- The Revolution took a Communistic form because the new state was challenged by internal disorder and external attack; and people acted as a nation under siege by putting aide all individual freedoms until order and security could be restored.
- Communism was a war economy, which tends to last longer.
- Calls out Marx’s conclusion of the eventual complete triumph of Socialism a mistake. Instead, it predicts a synthesis of Capitalism and Socialism. Which seems correct (case in point, China, Russia, and now the Socialist left in the U.S.).
Government and History
- Creating a free society requires the regulation of conduct. Absolute freedom dies in chaos.
- Monarchy is the most natural form of government because it is like the father’s authority in the family and their longevity (compared to democracies’ transient nature). But it has a mediocre record; the wars of succession and resulting instability level out what was right before.
- The complexity of modern states seems to break down any single mind that tries to master it.
- Most modern governments are oligarchies – ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies.
- It is unnatural for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized or united and specific action.
- If a minority of people holds the majority of abilities, the minority government is inevitable. The majority can only periodically throw one elite out and set up another in their place.
- Violent revolution rarely achieves change; economic developments force those changes to come over time anyway. E.g., French Revolution replaced a king with a military dictator, but England allowed for natural evolution and saw peace for 300 years+.
- Revolutions are bad because they destroy the system’s ability to handle complexity. That’s why we see that many revolutions result in more simple forms of government (dictatorship, monarchy, etc. case in point, Arab Spring, the Iranian revolution, etc.).
- Wealth is order and procedure of production and exchange, not the accumulation of goods, and is a trust in men and institutions rather than the money’s intrinsic value. Violent revolutions don’t redistribute wealth; they destroy it.
- ‘Real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.’
- According to Plato, the ‘cycle’ of political evolution: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, dictatorship. It seems to be echoed throughout history. American democracy avoided this fate so long as it maintained its strong Jeffersonian character, limited government, deep love for liberty, Anglo common law, family, etc. These things are now breaking down.
- ‘Democracy is the hardest form of government as it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.’
- Militarism will destroy democracy and lead to Caesarism.
History and War
- War is the default. Out of 3500 years of recorded history, about 268 have been without war.
- Competition through war is the creator and driver of everything: ideas, inventions, economies, institutions, and states.
- Peace is unstable and preserved only by acknowledged supremacy or equal power.
- War used to be a contest between aristocracies; now, it is between entire people. One great war can destroy centuries of civilization, although science and technology developed to do war in the first place can then be applied to develop civilization afterward. A worthy bargain?
- Peace will only come through a decisive victory by one power over all others or an attack from aliens that unites humanity against a common enemy.
Growth and Decay
- Civilization is defined as:
- social order promoting cultural creation.
- cultural creation through freedom and facilities for organization, expression, testing, and fruition of ideas, letters, manners, and arts.
- political order secured through custom, morals, and law.
- economic order maintained through continuity of production and exchange.
- an intricate and precarious web of human relationships, laboriously built and readily destroyed.
- History repeats itself not through specific events but general outlines, e.g., the rise and decline of states and civilizations, the progress from agriculture to commerce, from monarchy to democracy to autocracy. It is cyclical, regardless of what modern historians say!
- Social contract theory is nonsense; most polities took form through the conquest of one group by another and established continuing force over the conquered by the conqueror by their laws, which overtime merged with the conquered people’s customs to create a new social order. Economic provision and prevision based on the organization of production and labor create another element of growth. Cultural exchange and synthesis may promote intellectual and cultural activity. War can also make or break a nation - Britain collapsed after WWII, America rose to dominance.
- The source of decay is not by some mystic limitation but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change, e.g., climate change, taxation and productivity issues, foreign competition, inequality by wealth concentration, or the failure to manage the transition from one moral order to another.
- Civilizations don’t die - they pass on their artifacts to other civilizations who keep them alive to the present day. More people read Plato and Homer today than Greeks were alive around their time.
Is Progress Real
- There is no substantial change in man’s nature. All technological advances are new means of achieving old ends - acquiring goods, pursuing one sex by another, overcoming competition, and fighting wars.
- Francis Bacon said Knowledge is power. But does our exponentially increasing knowledge/information make us better humans? Maybe the mythology and art of the Middle Ages-Renaissance created wiser and better humans than us with our science and power.
- Our emancipation from theology does not necessarily mean that we have developed a moral code independent of religion that can restrain our vices.
- Has modernity improved philosophy, literature, music, architecture?
- How do we even define progress? Durant defines it as the ‘increasing control of the environment by life.’ Progress isn’t continuous or universal.
- ‘If a man is fortunate, he will gather his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children, and he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that is it our nourishing mother and our lasting life.’